Good News for Gluten-Free Consumers: Now You Can Have Your Cake and Eat it Too!

Although it’s a well-known truth that “man cannot live by bread alone,” only in recent years has the food industry discovered that many people can’t even subsist on bread. According to the Gluten Intolerance Group (GIG), over two million Americans (one out of every 133) suffer from celiac sprue disease, an autoimmune disorder marked by an inability to digest gluten from wheat, rye, or barley[1]. Recent studies show that the presence of celiac disease in the US is as frequent as it is in Europe; similar results were obtained in Africa, South America and Asia, where celiac disease had previously been considered a rare disorder. For many years, kosher consumers with celiac disease have had even fewer food choices, making grocery shopping and menu planning a daily challenge. Thanks to the dedication and innovation of a number of manufacturers, all that is changing.

Those affected by celiac disease have no choice but to be vigilant when buying products off the shelf or dining out. “I have to read all the ingredients on the label for any sign of grains,” says Chana, twenty, who discovered she had celiac when she was fourteen. “When I go to restaurants, it’s really a problem; often they use soy sauce (and other products) containing wheat.” Gluten can show up in prepared foods in unexpected (and invisible) ways. Manufacturers use gluten as a stabilizing agent or thickener in products such as ice-cream and ketchup and also in baked products for enhanced elasticity and texture. Consequently it isn’t listed on the ingredient panel, causing consumers with celiac and grain allergies unpleasant and even health-threatening reactions.

Composed of individuals with celiac disease, as well as those interested in improving the quality of life for individuals with gluten intolerance, the Gluten-Free Certification Organization (GFCO), a program of the GIG, launched an independent food processing inspection program in 2005 to verify that food products meet the highest standards for gluten-free ingredients and safe processing environment. The organization turned to the OU to facilitate the project. “As the largest kosher certifying organization, the OU has auditors all over the world,” says Cynthia Kupper, executive director. “Since both manufacturers and consumers recognize the leadership of the OU among certifying organizations, it lends added credibility to our program.” As more grain-sensitive consumers depend on the GF gluten-free certification, companies are realizing the value of signing on.

Farm Experiment Turned Business

In 2003, Seaton Smith, President of Gluten Free Oats a GF-certified product, in Powell, Wyoming, and his son Forrest, 19, both affected by celiac disease, decided to enter a project run by the Farmers of America to encourage young entrepreneurs. Forrest viewed this as an opportunity to find a way to grow and process oats free from any cross-contamination of wheat. According to his dad, he had plenty of incentive to succeed in the venture. “Forrest grew up never having tasted an oatmeal cookie, a slice of pizza, or a cinnamon roll,” says Smith.

They worked with local farmers, clearing fields of all traces of gluten. We walk the fields every day,” says Smith. “If I let one barley head sprout this year, I’m going to have thirty barley plants growing. And the following year, I’ll have thirty times thirty.” Their project led to a small home-based business, which led to a huge demand for their gluten-free oats. “The response has been amazing,” says Smith. “People use our oats for cookies, meatloaf, crepes; it’s very versatile. We’re trying to keep up with the volume.”

Gluten Free Oats currently sells in over one hundred different retail outfits, including Earth Fare and Whole Foods Gluten Free Bakehouse, which uses their oats to produce oat bread and granola. “It’s not just a business to us,” he says. “We have to be very detail-oriented. If we take one shortcut, a person could end up sick.”

The Smiths weren’t interested in taking shortcuts when it came to quality in kosher certification either. “I knew OU certification was something very worthwhile to offer to our clients,” he says. “It has generated business for us. We’re working on coming up with Passover oats for next season.”

Jim LeCureux, general manager of Heartlands Finest in Hillman, MI, a former high school agriculture teacher, unexpectedly discovered the joy and profit in tilling gluten-free soil. In 2002, while working for Michigan State University as an extension agent, helping farmers enhance their output through the use of herbicides, fertilizers, crop varieties, and irrigation, LeCureux was approached by dry bean farmers seeking advice on finding an alternative market. “They learned that people affected by celiac disease were looking for more protein and fiber (in their diets) and knew that beans could provide those nutrients,” says LeCureux. “We commissioned the University of Nebraska food science staff to create a questionnaire. It was sent nationwide to twelve hundred members of a Celiac Sprue Association. The results showed that they were looking for pastas, snacks and breakfast foods.”

In 2004, LeCureux launched Heartlands Finest with the aim of transforming beans into all-purpose flour for baking bread, cakes, muffins, cookies and other baked goods. Consumers can also find Heartlands Finest tasty offerings under the “Tree of Life” label.

Heartlands Finest products include spaghetti, linguini, lasagna, dry cereals, navy bean flour and pinto bean flour. The company boasts both OU and GF certifications. “We want to convey that we are concerned about the integrity of our product,” says LeCureux. “We think that the OU kosher program symbolizes that.”

Delectable Without the Discomfort

Josef Lefkowitz of Josef’s Gluten Free offers grain-sensitive consumers some long- denied tasty American mainstays. This former manufacturer of children’s sportswear has become the successful creator and marketer of rice-based recipes for bread, pizza, bagels, cakes, cookies, graham crackers and more.

Around the time Lefkowitz was diagnosed with an allergy to gluten products, an increase of foreign imports caused his clothing business to fall into a slump. His doctor suggested that he think about opening up a business of gluten-free products. Following doctor’s orders, he experimented with allergy-friendly ingredients and formulated recipes for foods he was missing in his regular diet. Word got out in the neighborhood about his home-based bakery; the Lefkowitzes were inundated with calls requesting recipes and products.

Deciding to share his gluten-free goodies with the greater public, he opened “Josef’s Organic,” a small store in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn. “(Parents) whose children had allergies to dairy or eggs were thrilled to find an address where they could buy (treats) their children could enjoy,” says Lefkowitz. “The enthusiastic response confirmed the demand for gluten-free products.” His website features a growing portfolio of products and attracts customers from around the country. Many of his online customers requested products with kosher certification; others suggested he sell his baked goods at Whole Foods. Confident that the customer is always right, he promptly pursued both. With an OU prominently displayed on the Josef Gluten-Free label, Whole Foods led to Wegmans, Price Chopper and numerous health food, kosher specialty stores and thousands of appreciative consumers.

Gluten-Free Online Grocery

For those requiring a gluten-free, allergen-free diet, with neither the time nor inclination to bake from scratch, Jay Berger and her husband Roy, owners of Miss Roben’s Mixes, have perfected baking mixes that are OU Kosher Parve, GF certified and made at their dedicated plant. Their products are also free of any open forms of wheat, gluten, dairy, peanuts, tree nuts, egg, soy, shellfish, fish, sesame, onion, and latex. The Bergers feature their mixes as well as many other companies’ gluten-free prepared foods on an online Allergy Grocery – a veritable cyber-supermarket for those affected by celiac disease or common food allergies.

“My goal is to help people with food issues,” says Mrs. Berger. “We have about fifty five baking mixes, from the standard fare of cakes, cookies and muffins to the more unique mock graham cracker, goldfish cracker, pastry puff recipe, soft pretzel and bagels. When they take a bite, I want the mouth-chew and texture to be everything they would want from regular bread products.”

She admits that, due to the fragility of gluten-free breads, finding the right combination of ingredients took time. “Add to that the fact we can’t use eggs or dairy to stabilize the blend,” she says. “It’s kind of an art form/chemistry experiment.” Apparently the experiment has been a success. “People email us to thank us when they place their orders.”

While formulating allergen-free mixes, the Bergers chose to get OU Kosher certification. And they’re happy they did. “I’ve seen more people looking at our products because we have kosher/parve mixes,” reports Berger. We wanted to meet the needs of those who are not having their needs met by the mass market.”

American consumers have made one shopping penchant “abundantly” clear and that’s their craving for snacks. No matter what the moment’s preference, noshers have a vast choice of chips, pretzels, sour sticks, cup cakes, cookies, and more. For years, the most the gluten-sensitive population could do was to look at the colorful packages and… imagine.

Thanks to the creativity and gumption of some enterprising individuals, this snack-deprived public can stop pining and start crunching. Carole Honig, COO and founder of Soy Crunch in Great Neck, NY, came upon an idea for a crispy snack on her way home from the health food store. Feeling hungry, she opened the package of textured soy protein (for her family’s vegetarian chili dinner) and started munching. “I found that I liked it in its dehydrated form,” says Honig. She also likes sweet things, so she decided to caramelize the batch using sugar – with very delicious results.

Her children took their newfound treats to school and shared it with friends. The crunch was cast; everyone who partook wanted more. “It’s gluten-free, peanut free, dairy free, and vegan. A perfect soy snack,” says Honig. “I realized the product could reach a greater audience.” Honig moved her operation from her kitchen into a small factory in Glen Cove, Long Island, NY. Interested in capturing the kosher market, she sought OU certification, as well as a kosher distributor. Available in five flavors, Soy Crunch can be found at Whole Foods, health food stores, airports, Super Sols, Citarella, Fairway, Macy’s, in multiple states from Maine to North Carolina.

Pete Lescoe, CEO and founder of FoodShouldTasteGood, in Needham, MA, sensed a niche for tortilla chips that would not only be “good for you,” but also edible by the greater public (including the gluten-sensitive). The line features seven different types of tortilla chips, including Jalapeno, Olive, Sweet Potato, and even a Multigrain chip made from celiac-safe yellow corn, brown rice flour, flax seeds, oat fiber, quinoa and soy flour. The products are OU and GF certified and are distributed nationally through Whole Foods. “We’re pleased that the OU is getting behind gluten-free,” says Lescoe. “Over the next few years, the GF certifying mark is going to become more and more recognizable. The OU (symbol) lends credibility and weight to the GF certification.”

Celiac disease (coeliac is the usual spelling in Europe and Australia) is a condition that may develop in certain genetically susceptible individuals. People with celiac disease cannot eat wheat, rye, or barley. Proteins in these grains (and peptides derived from the proteins during digestion) initiate pathophysiological processes that may eventually lead to severe damage to the absorptive epithelium lining the small intestine.